By Bill Wine

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – He’s a franchise, he’s a cottage industry, he’s a phenomenon.

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He’s best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks, and he’s sparked enough interest among readers and moviegoers over the last decade-and-a-half to become an acknowledged force in popular culture.

His many fans think of him, whether they know it or not, as the Department of Sparks and Recreation.

For Nicholas Sparks completists, The Choice, the latest of his book-to-screens, is the eleventh novel of his to make its way to the movie screen.

Following 1999’s Message in a Bottle, we’ve had A Walk to Remember (2002), The Notebook (2004), Nights in Rodanthe (2008), Dear John (2010), The Last Song (2010), The Lucky One (2012), Safe Haven (2013), The Best of Me (2014), and The Longest Ride (2015).

By my reckoning, none has been great, none has been dreadful, most have been presentable or close, and no others among his adapted titles have had the high-profile impact of The Notebook, which many viewers swear by.

But the parade of Sparks releases has continued for years with nary an interruption.

Which brings us to The Choice.

 

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

 

Once again, Sparks has applied the familiar romantic-drama formula: mismatched lovers, tragic obstacles, and love-conquers-all romanticism.

Are his movies weepies or tearjerkers? Are the cliches too abundant? Is the target audience just incurable romantics?

You make the calls.

New next-door neighbors Gabby Holland, played by Teresa Palmer, and Travis Shaw, played by Ben Walker, meet in their small coastal town in scenic North Carolina – where most of the Sparks stories are set — in the 1990s.

Gabby is a hard-studying medical student who’s about to settle down with her long-term physician boyfriend.

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Travis is a veterinarian and a ladies’ man, happy in his solitude, who’s not looking to be reformed or slowed down or committed.

Each has a path picked out already, and they certainly don’t appear destined to be a couple.

Yet there’s an obvious and undeniable attraction between them that tugs at each of them.

It eventually turns them into a couple after all, as they begin making decisions together about their future life and the family they hope to have.

But the title lets you know that there will come a time that a decision will have to be made by one of them willy-nilly.

And then, sure enough, as it inevitably does, life happens.

Director Ross Katz (Adult Beginners), formerly a producer, works from the adapted screenplay by Brian Sipe, based on Sparks’ 2007 novel of the same name, that has a strong sense of place, injects more than the usual quota of leavening humor, and celebrates follow-your-heart perseverance.

The early reels have a relaxed naturalness and down-home charm that helps to showcase the likability of the two leads, especially the easy charisma of Walker. And the supporting cast, including Maggie Grace as Travis’s sister and Tom Wilkinson as his veterinarian father, do their part to sell the story.

But when the narrative jumps ahead by over a decade, it’s jarring and disruptive. And, as sometimes happens in Sparks dramas, there is a tragic occurrence in the late going – one that will not be revealed here – that doesn’t necessarily feel organically developed in this particular narrative and that thus suggests that this is two movies in one.

The flashback-featuring structure of the script takes the edge off this split-personality element of the tale, but not as much as we’d like.

And while admirable execution is on display early on, winning the day in the film’s first half, this change in direction compromises the film’s eventual emotional payoff.

This eleventh screen spark from Sparks is smoother and more impactful than some of his prior offerings and more unwieldy and bothersome than others. On the quality hierarchy, locate it in the middle of the pack.

So we’ll fall for 2½ stars out of 4. Sparks devotees who choose The Choice will likely appreciate that their expectations have been met.

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